Chapter One

Enough trouble

"Let's get one thing straight here. You fucked up. Irreparably. No, I don't care how long it took you to get here, shut the fuck up. You wasted your time, you're wasting my time—again! It's like you haven't realized the reason we moved was to get away from you. You vile, filthy fucking creep, and apparently, you're fucking retarded too.

"It's over. It's been over, did no one tell you? I never want to see you again. Penny never wants to see you again. And yet, here you fucking are, months and months later. "Oh Sebastian, I'm so sorry!" No you're not, that's bullshit. You wanna feel fucking good about yourself, act like you're any different because you dicked around in the woods for funsies.

"Oh, but here were are, in Apricot Bay, everyone's really nice all the time! Colton gets forgiven because he's really sorry this time! Oh, he didn't mean it! You and everyone else in this fucking town, it's so sentimental and mawkish and it just gets old. You knew exactly what you were doing—and you can't even look me in the eye. You're a terrible liar, you know that?

"And enough with the sniffling and sobbing and *whimpering*—no one feels bad for you. You are actually repulsive. Rot. You hear me? Rot."

And like that, after a few steps back, he darted off into the forest out of sight. I went back into the house and collapsed back onto the couch, unfazed.

Penny had been watching the scene unfold from her favorite spot at the big window in the living room. She looked strangely distant about it, and it took her a minute to climb back onto the couch next to me.

"...Ya didn't have to be such a spaz about it, you know," she said at long last.

"He's trouble. You get in enough trouble."

Chapter Two

The Guardian

I have this recurring dream where I'm left to wander an abandoned Apricot Bay totally by my lonesome. It always starts the same: I wake up inverted in bed, sore and stuffy, only to find the house completely empty. No Kevin, no Penny. I walk to the mailbox, which is always empty, and then wander into town to find it utterly desolate, eerily quiet except for the occasional call of birds of prey overhead.

I'm used to noise. It's the lack of it that chills me.

That night wouldn't have been any different. I couldn't sleep: under my sheets, I cooked. On top of them, I froze. Thankfully, sometime after midnight, I passed out anyway, and so began the ghost town dream...or what would've been it, anyway.

I was noticing what I never did in that dream. Unrinsed bowls of cereal in the sink. The TV left to color bars overnight. The mailbox door left open, hanging way off its hinge like someone smashed it open. It was routine until it wasn't. Something about this time felt lucid, more like everyone really had left Apricot Bay at last. I was starting to get suspicious.

As I stepped outside into the early morning glow, I scanned the cul-de-sac for a sign of life. I peeked down our side street into the town itself for anything, a single soul to accompany me. This was always the point where my stomach went to knots, and this time, it felt more like a tourniquet around my insides.

And that's when it hit me: I was being watched again, just like the tree. That feeling of judgement, that feeling of being glared at from afar was unmistakable. This time, I was angry.

"You can stop watching me now, you know..." I called to the trees, desperate to scare the nosy bastards off.

"Oh, I don't think so."

My heart stopped. Someone was there. A low female voice, disembodied, coming from nowhere specific like a storm system rumbling overhead. Indeed, things went dim quickly, and radioactive orbs blew from the grass into a small tornado in front of me. There, floating and flanked by the orbs, she appeared. A gecko. Sandy, banded scales under a white-and-gold bodysuit that looked like nothing I'd ever seen anyone wear before. Her bulky tail wound and unwound slowly behind her.

And looking into those giant, vile, lava-filled eyes, it was like some god had personally sent an assassin down for me.

I stayed silent at first, barely breathing as she floated over me. Her pointed snout twitched as she glared.

"...Can I help you?" I asked.

"I'd worry more about helping yourself, Sebastian."

"What are you playing at?"

She smirked and placed a splayed hand on her front. "I—am the Guardian of Apricot Bay. I protect the town and those who dwell here." With those words and her anger cooling a little, her bizarre, huge, unblinking gecko eyes turned to a sort of magenta. I stood puzzled, trying to read them.

"So why aren't you protecting it then?"

"I don't think you quite get me, Sebastian."

My eyes went wide. "...You think I'm a threat?"

"Well, you are fond of acting like one..."

"In what way?" I was starting to get defensive. How...dare she?

"Well, there's your screaming matches at the library, the way you berate your friends in public, the way you rip mail out of Arthur's hands..."

Mmmh. "He was coming to give it to me anyway, what's the big deal?"

"You told Diesel you wanted to dump lead paint into the river to "prevent more of him from coming out of it"?"/p>

"He got my bread all soggy!"

"And how could I forget the number you only just did on Colton..."

I folded my arms and scowled. "I'm not sorry for that. I don't care."

"...Maybe you will. Follow."

I kept still.

"I said follow." Her eyes flashed red again, and her voice crackled down from the sky like a thunderbolt, nearly shaking me awake.

"Okay, okay! Shit."

She lead me into the nearby forest, blowing aside branches and ferns as she hovered through the growth. They stayed away from me too, which I was relatively thankful about. Nature is dirty.

It wasn't even half a minute later that I heard something up ahead. A—heaving interspersed with pockets of pathetic sobbing. On instinct, I was growing uncomfortable, but as it got closer, I recognized it, and my God, I hated it.

In the clearing, Colton sat on a rock, wrapped around his knees and bawling his eyes out. He looked a wreck and sounded it too, occasionally crying hard enough to make himself cough and gasp for breath. Sometimes, he'd pull himself together just long enough for me to see his puffy eyes and the matted fur along his muzzle, only to fall back apart into tears.

I couldn't look. It brought me back to that miserable, bitter night all those months ago, us awkwardly stumbling away from the sound of Colton left alone to cry in that alleyway.

"Look at him. This is what you just did to Colton. Look at him."

I forced myself to look at him and groaned loudly. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you know right from wrong."

"He hurt Penny."

Her eyes widened. "What, and do you think I don't know that? Do you think Colton himself didn't tell me? At least he came here for forgiveness, Sebastian."

"And that's what you want? Me to forgive him?"

"I want you to play nice with him. You don't get to take your anger out on strangers, come now."

"Whatever. I'll..."play nice"." At this point, I was just going along with it, hoping I'd wake up soon and could brush this off. Not like I'd ever have to see him again after having scared him off.

She didn't seem satiated by that. "...But I think we both know this is more than what he did."

I froze. She knew I felt guilty about splitting them, and she was using it against me.

"...Fuck you."

"You felt bad about rescuing Penny, and the guilt stuck with you."

"Fuck you. Colton!"

No response, so I tried again. "Colton!"

"He can't hear you."

"Make him hear me."

She only smiled, satisfied at having made her point. With one last pained wail ringing out against the trees, Colton disappeared and we were left alone again. I slouched, exhausted.

"And so we're clear...if you don't want to see more of me, I'd suggest you control yourself."

"Enough." I could barely manage more than a mumble. "God, you're creepy."

"Oh, and I have much more for you, in case you don't heed my warnings." She let out another one of her disgusting smirks. "Certainly, Colton's not the only one you regret harming..."

My jaw dropped. I was livid. "Don't touch that. Do not."

"Then be civil. Detective." Her eyes cooled to purple, and she swished her orbs around some.

Chapter Three

Minor tranquilizer

I jolted awake. The nausea had been hitting me early that morning. I felt the room sway off its axis as I threw myself out of bed, still very vividly aware of the night's events. There was no way that was just a dream.

I took to the bathroom to stare at my dead, tired face and process what happened. As I stood there, waiting for the nausea to go down, I noticed Colton wandering slowly down the beach from the upstairs window. He looked to be in his own world, staring down at the ground as he made tracks. The images of him from the night before lingered, tugging at me.

I figured it'd buy me some favor with the gecko if I went and talked, as unenthused as I was about eating crow, especially one that big. ...Okay, whatever, maybe I felt a little guilty too. Not like she wasn't right.

I came down the bridge to the beach a short while later. "Colton," I called like I had in the dream.

This time, he reacted. He jumped at the sudden noise, and doubly so at it being my voice. At least he didn't look like he'd been crying...recently. Stopped dead, he only stared back at me. I hadn't realized how quiet things really were until that moment.

I stepped down into the sand and approached, and his hand-wringing and breathing only got more stressed as I got closer.

"I'm sorry for screaming at you yesterday. And what I said."

His eyes grew wide, out of anxiety of course, but also surprise, confusion, and generally being unsure of how to react. I don't know if I would've been any different if I was him.

"But Sebastian, you were right," he said quietly. "I am a—vile, filthy creep."

"No, stop. You're not. I don't know why I said that. I was angry."

He looked around as if he was fishing for a reaction that never came, leaving us both in nervy silence. Ultimately, not a word was said in response.

I sniffed and started to back away. "Um...good luck with things, I guess."

"Wait! ...Can I talk to—Penny?"

Ugh. Of course. I still didn't want him anywhere near her, but it felt extra wrong to tell him that after everything I said. I grew even more sheepish.

"I—yeah. Sometime soon, I promise. She's—very asleep right now."

A wave of relief seemed to come over him. Whatever, it was a white lie, and it made him feel better. Worked for me. I made sure to get back over the bridge before he could ask any more questions about her.

And oddly enough, as I stepped back over the crest of the hill, a bit of relief came to me as well. It wasn't over having apologized, it was too strong for that. It—felt peaceful, like a minor tranquilizer making its way through my body. The nausea was gone too.

I looked around to find Colton gone and the town waking up as it always did. I smiled. Normalcy, I suppose. I couldn't explain the feeling, but after the night I had, I was gonna take it.